June 23, 2009
Since the 1950s, Mau Mau has often been synonymous with atavistic savagery. It was a grassroots movement that sought to end British rule in Kenya, and with it the privileges of an African minority loyal to colonialism. Comprised almost entirely of Kikuyu – Kenya’s largest ethnic group — Mau Mau perpetrated some heinous crimes. But, so, too, did the agents of British colonialism, and on an order of magnitude that dwarfed Mau Mau acts of violence.
For the duration of the emergency (1952-60), the colonial government embarked upon a campaign to suppress Mau Mau using a two-pronged offensive. The first campaign was waged in the Mount Kenya and Aberdares forest against some 20,000 Mau Mau guerrillas, over whom British forces gained the initiative by the end of 1954.
It was the second-prong of Britain’s offensive aimed at African civilians that was by far the largest, most violent and longest in duration. Targeted against some 1.5 million Kikuyu who were allegedly Mau Mau sympathisers, Britain’s civilian campaign grew in its intensity, systematising and brutality over time. By the end of 1955, colonial authorities had detained nearly the entire Kikuyu population in either one of some 150 detention camps – known as the Pipeline – or in one of more than 800 barbed-wired villages.
Behind the wire, British agents perpetrated unspeakable acts of violence against men, women, and children. Castrations, forced sodomies with broken bottles and vermin, tortures using fecal matter and gang rapes were but some of the tactics used to force detainees to comply.
Such acts were not the result of a few “bad apples”. The systematic use of violence was conceived and approved at the highest levels of British governance in Nairobi and London. There is much evidence to support this, despite the fact that British officials received, and executed, orders to purge their files at the time of decolonisation in 1963.
The years I spent trolling through documents in British and Kenyan archives revealed a story of Britain’s routine violation of international law in Kenya, and consistent efforts at cover-up, all with the knowledge of top officials in Nairobi and London. At the time, critics within and outside government demanded an end to British colonial violence. Barbara Castle, the Labour MP, condemned her country’s actions, stating: “In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation.”
Today, survivors of the Mau Mau camps and villages seek their day in court, and with it, reparations. Despite – or perhaps because of – the evidence, it remains to be seen whether or not the British Government of today, like that of yesteryear, will attempt to silence their efforts, this time through legal manoeuvrings.
It is morally incumbent upon the British government to allow this case to go forward, not just for the survivors, but also for the British and Kenyan public who have a right to full knowledge of their pasts as they search for new directions in the future. At the very least, the weight of the archival evidence and survivor testimony warrants an official apology as the start of a new systematic effort, this time to make amends.
Caroline Elkins is a Professor of History at Harvard University and and Pulitzer prize- winning author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya